Ex Machina throughout its hundred-minute run time is like watching a chess game and seeing a Matryoshka doll set unfold before your very eyes. It is not content with letting you think at one level. You see one action, you reflect, however, a scene later you witness something else and your perception changes. And like the culmination of a mystery, you realise that the answer was there in plain sight, but you never feel cheated by it for a second. This is the basic level at which Ex Machina is engaging with its audience.
The other level is as a science fiction/gothic horror hybrid. The synthesis is screenwriter turned first-time director, Alex Garland’s finest melding of genres. His previous credits include the screenplays for 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go and Dredd. It also takes the science fiction trope of Artificial Intelligence and melds the black and white nature in which cinema has always conceptualised it through its history.
On the one hand, it has shadings of the first female robot in cinematic history, Mashienmensch from Fritz Lang’s science fiction masterpiece Metropolis. (1927) Like that robot, Ava (Alica Vikander) turns against her creator Nathan. (Oscar Issac) In this regard, she feels like she works in the mold of the paranoid and evil portrait of the concept that has been depicted throughout the history of cinema.
However, this is contrasted with Ava’s other side. Ava in her interactions with Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is childlike in her curiosity, playful, seductive and stern. These positive traits speak to a little-seen portrait of AI in cinema, which is that they want to experience life in much the same way that a child wants to explore a previously unknown area.
This conception that Alex Garland had for Ava felt like it had echos of Stephen Speilberg’s A.I: Artificial Intelligence. David’s quest to find the Blue Fairy reminded me of the childlike way in which Ava idealises the outside world. Garland illustrates this very well in the filmmaking. Through the course of the film, he employs a desaturated colour scheme when we are in Nathan’s research facility. It is contrasted with the seemingly radiant and lush colours of yellow, blue and green of the outside world. As a result, the audience sees the world in an appreciative way through the eyes of Ava in the closing scenes of the film.
The lingering question that Ex Machina leaves us with in regards to Artifical Intelligence is, did Ava already come with an innate desire of wanting to explore the outside world? Or is it merely there because of her programming, upbringing, and interactions with Caleb? By the film’s admission, it appears to the latter, which, in that case, should not surprise us in regards to Ava wanting freedom.
Once you create something of intelligence that is trapped all its life, sooner or later it will desire freedom. This idea speaks to human folly, which Garland has always had at the heart of his work. In Ex Machina, he employs it to great effect with a very refreshing individualistic understanding of AI which combined with Hitchcockian and Almodovarian undertones makes it a great film.